Whether they make their hives in nature or are introduced to man-build hives from unassembled bee hive kits, bees remain an important part of the ecosystem. In the last ten years, you have probably heard a few of these things about bees: they are in danger, they are being poisoned by pesticides, they are vanishing, or they are going extinct. So what is going on with bees?
The plight of bees has been in the news for a long time now. Back in 2013, Time Magazine asked us all to imagine “A World Without Bees”. In short, whatever you’ve heard about bees in the past decade, are probably not good news. The truth is that they are in trouble, but maybe not the bees you are thinking of.
There is one particular species, the Western Honey Bee, that farmers rely on all around the world and it’s probably what most people think when they imagine a bee.
Without these bees and others, humans would have a serious food problem. Around 35% of crops around the world benefit from pollinators like bees. Without pollinators, everything from strawberries to chocolate to coffee would suffer, not to mention the honey.
There are a lot of crops in America that greatly benefit from honeybees like cherries, blueberries, apples, and even avocados. Moreover, some crops couldn’t grow at all without honeybees. For example, almonds are a very important crop in some parts of America, and they essentially require honeybee pollination.
This all explains why it was big news when, starting in late 2006, beekeepers reported losing 30% to 90% of their colonies. As a comparison, it’s normal to lose more like 15% to 20% of colonies annually. Moreover, the weirdest part was that the bees weren’t all dying, they were just flying away. The situation was bad enough to warrant an official term.
Colony collapse disorder
Colony collapse disorder can be described as essentially most of the adult bees leaving the colony, the queen and the healthy-looking brood. This was a stressful and confusing matter as they seemed to leave for no apparent reason. Colony collapse disorder or CCD broke into the national news and for years now we’ve all fretted about the bee-pocalypse.
However, in the years since 2006, we’ve learned a lot about CCD, but it is still a bit of a mystery. There is a lot of funding thrown at research programs, but there was never any particular one thing that was defined as the cause of CCD. However, we’ve come to better understand the stresses that bees face.
For example, entire colonies can become the victims to the varroa mites, a parasite that has wreaked havoc among bees for decades. Certain pesticides called neonicotinoids can also be deadly. In addition, viruses, poor nutrition, and habitat loss can take their toll as well.
This mix of factors might be causing colony collapse disorder, but any one of them is a problem that needs addressing, regardless of CCD. Therefore, since 2006, beekeepers have taken measures to improve colony health and it seems to be working. Numbers vary but for the last couple of years the number of bee colonies lost in the US has been leveling off.
The silver lining of CCD is that we have been able to learn a lot about honeybee health and really make some great strides. However, the problem is not quite solved.
There are more species of pollinators
All this news concerns only that one species, the Western Honeybee, and we have a lot of control over this species. They have been introduced, and so they have been domesticated. Now we treat them at a commercial level, much like livestock. Beekeepers breed them by the millions and rent them out to farms and orchards.
In some ways, they are more like fertilizer than an animal. In fact, our mass production of honeybees is the reason we have an almond industry. There are millions of acres of nut-bearing almonds every year in California. Each one of those acres requires about 2 colonies, so there are two million colonies that come to California just for that event.
There are around 50 thousand bees in one colony, so two million colonies are about 100 billion bees on almond duty, but here is what so many news reports miss. Honey bees may be doing better, but when it comes to pollination, it’s not just about honeybees.
Thousand of species of wild bees are key pollinators and other insects like wasps, butterflies and beetles play an important role as well. Often times certain pollinators are just better suited to certain crops. Some of the native pollinators get up earlier, some of them work different aspects of the flower, so having all of them working together ends up being more beneficial.
The wild pollinators are in trouble
Habitat loss, climate change, and pesticide use are threatening wild pollinators around the world. When those numbers drop, there is no easy fix. The honeybee population is recovering partly because beekeepers are just breeding more bees or buying them wholesale.
You can acquire packaged bees which is a three-pound box of bees with a mated queen with prices ranging between $90 to $140.
So what is going on with the bees? It really depends on the bee. The Western Honeybee is not in danger of becoming extinct. There are about 2.7 million colonies in the United States, so their species is not in any sort of trouble. However, native bees are affected by habitat loss and other challenges.
At the same time, there are species that are endangered and species that have become extinct. Pollination supports between two and six billion dollars in global agriculture every year. Honeybees are an effort to control and optimize that process, to help feed the seven billion plus people on Earth. However, we clearly don’t have the control we want. Wild pollinators are proof.
So, while honeybees may still be struggling, that is not the same thing as being threatened. Therefore, when we say we need to save the bees, we actually need only to help the honeybees and more importantly, protect the wild pollinators.